Dirty and Narrow: The Questionable Path to Righteousness

The Tale of Two Cities critical article argues that “Baldwin juxtaposes two cities, the earthly and the heavenly, and together they help to focus the novels various themes: father and son, individual and community, and the sacred and the profane.”  The most convincing evidence for this argument in my opinion is the use of Baldwin’s descriptions of the cities as evidence that the Harlem acts as an “urban nightmare” whereas New York is “vanity fair”.  Ironically, Harlem, with streets muddled with trash and men and women in their Saturday clothes on Sunday morning seemingly gross and run down, is the Holy City in the novel, and New York, with its sky-high buildings and beautiful museums, seemingly clean, bright and modern city, is the “earthly city”. Although Harlem is portrayed as the “narrow path” filled with religion in Baldwin’s novel, the narrow path which is typically associated with cleanliness and righteousness is instead portrayed as dirty and full of sin. With the only thing waiting on John down the path of the narrow way being “humiliation forever”(Baldwin 34), Scruggs continues on to highlight how Elizabeth views John’s eventual transition to Christianity as his embracement of “Gabriel’s gloomy religion and that Richards spirit has died in him.” (Scruggs 15)

The trash and dirt paired with the dreariness that seems to follow this Christianity throughout the novel makes me question the benefit of this religious experience. Baldwins quote “If the concept of God has any validity or use, it can only be to make us larger freer and more loving, if God cannot do this, then it is time we get rid of Him” sat with me as I read John’s constant limbo state that Christianity put him in. Amongst James attempt to find himself, the gloomy narrow path down which the cross is on seems to constrict James more than it makes him free. I think the dirt and trash in this novel work to amplify the gloominess that religion brings John and not only makes the main protagonist question to the validity of the “narrow path” that he is on, but the reader as well. Although John does eventually come to be saved by Christianity, I still find it difficult to see that John has truly found his fit and I agree more with Scruggs that the “Negro Church serves as a halfway station” on the path to John’s way to find himself. (Scruggs 17)

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